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Maine Green Party Takes Stock on 30th Anniversary

This weekend, members of the Maine Greens will celebrate the 30th anniversary of their party, which now includes more than 30,000 members.  It was started by a small group of people who were disenfranchised with the Democratic Party, in part, because of the difficulty they faced trying to get presidential candidate Jesse Jackson on the Maine ballot in 1984. The Greens embraced what were considered fringe values at the time.  And while many of their positions have since gone mainstream, the party is still working to gain broader acceptance.  Susan Sharon has more.
At 85, former Bowdoin College professor, author and anti-nuclear activist John Rensenbrink is considered the "father" of the Green Party in Maine. Speaking recently over coffee at his favorite deli in Brunswick, he says he co-founded it with friend and fellow activist Alan Philbrick after Rensenbrink traveled to Poland, where he was inspired by the "Solidarity" movement there, and Philbrick traveled to Canada for the first meeting of the Canadian Greens.  

"I had become pretty disenchanted with the leadership of the Democratic Party," Rensenbrink said. "I felt it was moving away from the people, that it was responding to calls for doing the same old thing and maintaining their power at the top."

Rensenbrink, Philbrick and others had been looking to affect public policy in a way that would be more consistent with the new "greening" of the world that they saw was taking place, a new paradigm where ecology, grassroots democracy, diversity and social and economic justice would be front and center.  

And so they launched the Green Party of Maine, the first party of its kind in the United States.  The formation of the U.S. Green Party quickly followed, with Rensenbrink also involved in spearheading that.  

"It was harder than I thought it was going to be - a lot harder. Just extremely difficult," he says, "partly because there's a wellspring of disillusionment and anger in giving up on the political situation by most people."

Most people, Rensenbrink says, really do believe you can't fight City Hall.  And it's this state of disengagement, this pervasive sense of defeat, that Rensenbrink says has been a big obstacle for the Greens.

"I think our biggest challenge is to persuade people that politics is a way, and the ballot box is a tremendously sacred institution, and we need to use it," he says.

"Let's go!  What do you say? When do we say enough is enough? (more clapping) Woo!" That's environmental activist Jonathan Carter, who took on that challenge three times as a Green independent - first, in 1992, as a candidate for Maine's 2nd Congressional District, and twice as a candidate for governor, in 1994 and again in 2002.   

Back then, during a stump speech, he said he was considered "extreme" for supporting a single-payer health care system, something that has since been adopted by progressive Democratic candidates.

"It really is extreme, folks, that these people don't understand that health care is a fundamental right," he said to applause.

In his first race Carter got nearly 9 percent of the vote, despite spending less than $20,000 on his campaign with no paid media.  Two years later, he got enough votes to give the Green Party ballot status in Maine.  

But the status was lost in 1996 when presidential candidate Ralph Nader failed to win 5 percent of the vote. "There's no surprise that a third party hasn't come out of anything, even though one is desperately needed," says Green Party member Pat LaMarche, who says the parties in power do what they can to keep others from succeeding.

"To think that it's an accident is crazy," LaMarche says. "It would be like saying:  'I tied the lawn guy down in the basement and then I can't figure out why he doesn't mow the lawn.'"

LaMarche is best known as the Greens' candidate for vice president in 2004.  But before that she was a Green candidate for Maine governor in 1998, becoming the first woman in state history to gain ballot access for a political party.  

State rules required, however, that the name of the newly-qualified party be changed. And so it then became officially known the Green Independent Party.  With a code that embraces 10 key values and shuns corporate donations, the Greens, says LaMarche, are anything but a loosely-knit group of independent activists.

"So, if you're a big corporate toadie, you probably aren't gonna like us, you know?" she says. "And we don't take big campaign contributions, so you can't buy us.  There are rules.  And those rules don't apply to these quote-unquote 'independents.'"

This year there are no Green candidates running for governor or for Congress.  The same was true four years ago.  John Rensenbrink says that's partly because of stricter rules to qualify for seed money as a Clean Elections candidate.  

But he says it's also because the party is trying to affect change by winning races where it can. That starts in the Legislature, where Daniel Stromgren of Topsham is one of 15 Greens running for the House and Senate.

"We were originally seen as radical environmentalists," he says. "Now, it's not unheard of to talk about renewable resources, alternative energy, environmental stewardship, global warming.  As these ideas become more accepted, then our larger message resonates with the public."

Stromgren says politicians talk all the time about the importance of crossing the aisle, but what he hopes to see is a new aisle. Green Party co-founder John Rensenbrink  figures it will probably take another 30 years to make that happen.